Guest writer: Christopher Bishop
This is the first in a series of guides aimed at discussing the handling of unique table personalities. I will be covering commonly encountered player types and hopefully provide suggestions and framework to make this encounter resolve positively for everyone involved. This is NOT intended to insult or degrade any one type of player, but simply to provide a general how do I handle this personality in a way that will make the game rewarding not just for myself but for all those sitting at the table. With that being said, Let’s move forward by examining our first type: The Meta gamer.
So what the heck is a meta-gamer in the first place? Meta-gaming is defined by Wikipedia as: Meta-gaming is any strategy, action or method used in a game which transcends a prescribed rules set, uses external factors to affect the game, or goes beyond the supposed limits or environment set by the game.
So how does this translate to the game? Well if say a player at your table has previously played a module or adventure you are running, they may use their knowledge of the scenario to alter or make choices their character would have no way of knowing.
Example: John having played through the current adventure Ian is running comes up to a hallway that makes a T junction. He knows if he goes right it leads to a pit trap where the only way across is by using a grappling hook. Looking over his own sheet and of course having paid attention to what the other players possess (another example of meta-gaming) he steers the party to the left instead where he knows a chest lies in the second room that contains mountain climbing equipment such as 100 feet of rope and 2 grappling hooks. Armed with the grappling hooks now, he steers the party back to the right tunnel using some invented excuse, making sure to “Search for traps” to find the pit and circumvent the trap.
The above example is one of the more common forms of meta-gaming, and sadly one that is seen ALL too often, especially in convention play. It is hard in a convention scenario to call a player out for the decisions they make without solid proof they are using out of character knowledge. Essentially this is a form of cheating though, akin to using a cheat guide to get through a video game instead of encountering things and figuring them out for yourself. It is hard to convince folks these days though that using out of character knowledge is wrong at a tabletop game. Our culture almost encourages it these days. A new hardcore video game comes out and the cheat guide with walk-through releases the same day if not before the actual game release.
This has fostered a mentality of needing or feeling like you have to have the cheat guide just to play through the game. I would therefore suggest that players and GM’s alike have been coaxed into believing the same is to be said with any game they play. Sadly, it is the author’s humble opinion that culturally we could not be more wrong. Role-playing games encourage, nay enforce the power of critical thinking. Role-players are constantly forced into unfamiliar scenarios in which the intent is for them to think through mindset of their character and how they would react to said danger or trial. It’s not about winning, it is about surviving, and later through problem solving, flourishing.
So how do you deal with the meta-gamer? They are hell bent upon succeeding and willing to do whatever it takes to make that happen. They will crunch numbers, spend hours if not days analyzing a system for a perceived advantage, and often times border on being a Rules Lawyer themselves. The simple fact is, it is going to have to start with a conversation in private.
Step 1: The Conversation
The meta-gamer simply wants to succeed. They want to succeed and they want to be the best. They view every game session as them versus you. Either GM vs Players or Player vs GM. You need to pull them aside and let them know your part of a team. Express to them how the GM has no story without the players, and in fact would have no game without the players. Reinforce the essential role they play at the table. You are creating a saga together. The story needs to be told and they are an integral piece. Ask them what advantage or benefit they feel they are getting out of meta-gaming. Enforce the importance of role-play over ROLL play, and show them through game decisions that a bad dice roll can be over looked if the action trumps the roll (nothing kills the climax of a grand battle worse than a 1 being rolled when the players backs are against the wall)
Step 2: Reward the behavior you want to see
The first step, the conversation will honestly only be half the battle. As a GM often times you will need take further steps to reinforce the discussion. I like to do the following:
1) Hide Dice Rolls and instead give descriptions (example Pierre the thief is trying to sneak up on a conversation and listen in. He has to make a move silently roll, which the GM makes for him and than rather give out a set number, instead gives out a description that plays out how the dice roll went and let the player judge if they received a success or not. After all, in real life its not like magical numbers flash up quantifying our level of success at a given task. We make decisions every day based around nothing more than our observation of success. Hiding Dice Rolls distracts away from the mechanical parts of the game and makes things feel more story driven.
2) Instead of giving out numbers for damage, give out descriptors. So at my gaming table I don’t say “Oh you dealt 7 points of damage, the goblin is on the ropes!” I give one of three descriptors. At 75% or more life, the creature or player is wounded at 50% they are quite bloodied and at 25% they appear winded and succumbing to their wounds. It leaves some uncertainty for the players to have to interpret and removing meta data such as raw numbers keeps players grounded in the action and the story as opposed to the piece of paper in front of them.
3) Have a decent pre-game introduction. Know Your Group! Before the game begins if these are new players take a few minutes to talk with them. Ask them what they like to see in a game, and look for key topics like discussing certain feats for value, and bragging on statistics. This will point out a meta-gamer faster then you will believe. At conventions this can be especially important as sometimes gamers literally show up just to throw a monkey wrench in the works at cons. I am not sure what pleasure they get from it, but at the last con I visited this happened at two tables I was a player at. A player intentionally showed up with the express purpose of pointing out the flaws in the Gamemaster’s system and how they could be exploited.
4) Make sure you know your material backwards and forwards. If you are playing a fairly commonly known module (Temple of Elemental Evil anyone??) get in there and change the monsters. Take the players in a different route to the dungeon, that alone can mess up the player trying to use out of character knowledge for in game advantage. I personally keep a couple different tables of monsters that I swap out as needed with equal hit dice creatures to what was originally in the module as written. When you get that first look of “That wasn’t in the module” from your meta-gamer, it is almost as satisfying as a good game session itself.
5) Don’t be hesitant to give experience bonuses for good role-play. Nothing will catch the attention of the meta-gamer faster than seeing loot or experience given out for actions in game. Remember the meta-gamer ultimately wants to win, and experience is winning for many of them. If they see that tossing that dwarvish accent on, playing through that failed detect traps roll, or even tossing some drama towards an in game occurrence has benefits, it won’t be long before they are trying to get in the mix too, forgetting about bending rules and perceived statistical advantages.
Step 3: The Gods are Fickle
Sometimes despite your best efforts, you just can’t seem to teach an old dog new tricks. There are just folks out there that want to be toxic and no amount of cajoling, gentle massaging or death threats will turn them from their course. When I was running Pathfinder, I had a player that constantly bought every book that came out by Paizo. Without fail if a new book was releasing he would bring it to my table and try to push this optional rule or that one. Most of the time, I would flat out say NO! But that did not stop his persistence. So, frustrated I decided to give the player EXACTLY what he asked for. However, I added the lovely house rule, if it works for you, it works for them. When Hackmasters rule of penetrating dice came to the table it was all fun and games until a goblin triple penetrated on his monk with a rusty short sword putting him at deaths door in 1 melee. All of a sudden that rule seemed “Way too harsh” Since then, the rule of “if it works for you it works for them” has kept many a proposed rule change out of my game.
Step 4: Take them out of their comfort zone
If the above steps do not work to calm the savage meta-gamer, sometimes you have to take away their advantages. Invent a creature immune to their most commonly used attack. Take them to a dimension or place where their strength is of no use (Half-Giant in a demi-human sized tunnel system anyone) Forcing the meta-gamer to have to rely on others in their team is a great way to rally the troops, and reinforces the concept that thinking on your feet is a much better tool then manipulating statistics for a perceived advantage. Remember not to take things to far. We are not trying to break the player just trying to get them to recognize all the aspects of role-playing and that truly winning is walking away from the table feeling like you were just part of something epic.
Next up in my series on table personalities: The Curmudgeon!
Keep Rolling them Bones,